Our host father and his two young daughters begin the tour of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem after a breakfast we prepared together with his wife. My tomato chopping skills are definitely improving. He smokes constantly and, like many men, has done his stint in Israeli jails. After two years, he was released and given a permit that limited his movements to Bethlehem for life. His family has had many Israeli home invasions, and the Israeli Defense Forces killed his brother and sister and bombed his mother’s house. He has many skills in construction and is a skilled electrician; he has no paid work currently but dreams of building his wife her cooking center to raise money for their disabled son and help empower other women. IDF soldiers visited our street last night, and this morning, we can see the spirals of tear gas one hundred meters away as young boys run down the street toward the archetypal entrance to the camp (a large house key over the gate). The massive grey concrete wall at the entrance to the camp is surrounded by garbage, and a grey IDF guard tower completes the trilogy. (Think the photo of the Pope praying at this wall, saying to the world, THIS EXISTS!) It appears that the tear gas is also in the vicinity of the boys’ UNRWA school and they are taking exams. Our host mentions that the IDF soldiers use the boys for target practice. The boys run towards the conflict, grabbing stones; the girls run home. The young daughter is handing out geraniums she has picked. The site of this skirmish is where the Pope stopped to kiss the wall and pray.
The camp has no green space but tons of children who need to play and release the rage, frustration, and fear that infuses the air and tear gas they breathe. We hear the history of dispossession in 1948, the UNRWA tents, the UN houses (thirty single rooms, one per family, often six to ten children and grandparents, and one bathroom for all thirty homes. Think about that for a minute; we are talking ten kids, poverty, trauma, depression, and appalling overcrowding.) Many men went to work in Israel to provide food for their families. My host explains that he is afraid for his children.
He tells them to stay away from the soldiers; he deeply cares for them, the soldiers do not. “We want peace.” He has Jewish Israeli friends and occasionally they visit him. He of course cannot leave Bethlehem, which is really an extension of his lifetime prison sentence.
The frequent tear gassing affects everyone and is reported to increase the risk of miscarriage.
More tear gas, more boys dash by. We stop at the mosque and kindergarten. There is a painting of a fierce orange tiger and the words, “Here only tigers can survive.” On the adjacent wall are two orange butterflies and the words, “Here only butterflies and birds are free.” Another young boy races past. We see a church in the camp and then cautiously look at the wall a few blocks from the guard tower. There is an enormous graffiti of a boy with a slingshot.
On a nearby crumbling wall of a house, someone drew an open mouth with a dove, a key in his mouth, flying out.
I spot Arabic graffiti supporting Fatah but surprisingly little related to any political party. There is a general sense of disgust for all political parties around here. I see a wall of a house with a painting of Al Aqsa and Mecca. Roosters are crowing and a haze of tear gas hangs over the homes. My host talks about wanting his children to get a good education and go to “the best universities.” He, like many fathers, has great hopes. He points out the agricultural land stolen when the wall was built; land his father would have given to him as part of the next generation of sons. I see teenage boys collecting small stones, begging us for dollars, cigarettes. My host pats them on the head and mutters, “simple,” and tries to dissuade them from throwing stones. They do not listen.
We make a quick friendly stop at the Al Rowwad Children’s Theater to visit our friend Abdelfattah Abusrour. We have been here before (my daughter taught yoga and dance), the dabke and theater troupe have performed in the Boston area and Europe. We squeeze into Abed’s office and I scan the photos of the Pope, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Einstein, and piles of books and files. On the wall, a poster proclaims: “The Right of Return is Not Negotiable and Not Subject to any Compromises.” Abed’s father was born in Beit Natif and his mother in Zacharia, both now destroyed villages. The family fled in 1948 to what became the Aida Refugee Camp, where Abed was born. (For an in-depth biography of this extraordinary man, see www.voicesacrossthedivide.com.) Abed can trace his family back ten generations and his name means: “The one who shall return.” With a PhD in biology from a French university, he got “outside the box” and decided to return home, to dedicate his energies to using the arts, dance, theater, photography, and creativity to strengthen the youth of Palestine. He returned in 1994, naively ready to “save Palestine.”
He explains to us that despite the representations in the media of the Palestinian as terrorist, in fact 99% of Palestinians have never carried a gun and resistance has been almost entirely unarmed and nonviolent and dates back to the Ottomans and then British rule.
He reminds us that Palestinian women formed the first women’s union back in 1920 when they demonstrated against the British Mandate and then the Zionists in 1929 by surrounding Jerusalem with 120 cars and honking up a storm. And that was a lot of cars for those days!
In 1998 Abdelfattah founded the Al Rowwad Center based on the idea of Beautiful Resistance. There are currently six thousand refugees crowded into ten acres of the Aida Camp. “Nobody wants a child martyr. Children should walk in their parent’s funerals, not the other way around.” “No country can live on the corpses of its people.” He encourages the international community to support the center through the Friends of Al Rowwad, which is a tax exempt organization with volunteers and partners in the United States, European Union, and Norway. We take a quick tour and the center is looking much more spiffy and modernized than my last visit, with an inviting library, computer room, and women’s center with sewing machines, embroidery, and exercise area; progress is being made against all odds.
We hurry home because our host is going to give us a cooking class, which she organizes with other women twice a month to raise money to support their disabled children. She is dressed in a lovely traditional embroidered dress and hijab. We set to work chopping cauliflower, carrots, onions, eggplant; there is laughter and friendly camaraderie in this room full of women. We are making maqluba (vegetarian and chicken), an upside-down rice and vegetable dish, and, for dessert, basbussa, a dangerously delicious moist cake of semolina, eggs, sugar, vanilla, coconut, lemon, and more, baked in an oven. (She prefers her ancient gas-fired metal oven in the hall to her modern electric one.) The house is soon filled with savory and sweet smells and high expectations. A few bits of advice: she did not measure anything, but you know you have enough chicken broth in the pot of rice and veggies when the spoon you stuck in the rice tilts over, always salt the eggplant so it will not be too bitter or squishy, use homemade yogurt. And of course it helps if she is standing next to you in the kitchen!
After this phenomenal meal, we make the rounds to say our goodbyes and I find the grandmother sitting alone with her maqluba in a separate part of the house. I take her hand and she starts to weep, tears streaming down her lined face. We have no words, so soon I wrap my arms around her and she weeps uncontrollably as I blot the tears off her cheeks. I can only imagine that her deep well of grief is overflowing: the loss of her home, the suffering in the camps, the deaths of her children, the humiliations, the curfews, a challenging grandchild, the life that she lost through no fault of her own, and her knowledge that she will never see justice in her lifetime. My tears linger with hers.